John Brent/Chapter XXIX
A Lost Trail
It was June when I reached London. Business, not fashion, was my object. I wished to be at a convenient centre of that mighty huddle of men and things; so I drove to Smorley’s Hotel, Charing Cross.
In America, landlords dodge personal responsibility. They name their hotels after men of letters, statesmen, saints, and other eminent parties. Guests will perhaps find a great name compensation for infinitesimal comfort.
They do these things differently in England. Smorley does not dodge. Not Palmerston, nor Wordsworth, nor Spurgeon, is emblazoned in smoky gold on Smorley’s sign; but Smorley. Curses or blessings, therefore, Smorley himself gets them. Nobody scowls at the sirloin, and grumbles, sotto voce, “Palmerston has cut it too fat to-day”; nobody tosses between the sheets and prays, “Wordsworth, why didst thou begrudge me the Insect-Exterminator? “Nobody complains, “Spurgeon’s beer is all froth, and small at that.” Smorley, and Smorley alone, gets credit for beef, beds, and beer.
Smorley’s Hotel stands at the verge of the East, and looks toward the West End of London. The Strand passes by its side, so thick with men, horses, and vehicles, that only a sharp eye viewing it from above detects the pavement. The mind wearies with the countless throng, going and coming in that narrow lane, and turns to look on the permanent features of Smorley’s landscape.
The chief object in the view is a certain second-rate square, named to commemorate a certain first-rate victory. But the square, second-rate though it be, is honored by a first-rate railing, a balustrade of bulky granite, which may be valuable for defence when Crapaud arrives to avenge Trafalgar. Inside the stone railing, which is further protected by a barricade of cabs, with drivers asleep and horses in nose-bags, are sundry very large stone fountains, of very smoky granite, trickling with very small trickles of water, which channel the basins as tears channel the face of a dirty boy. The square is on a slope, and seems to be sliding away, an avalanche of water-basins, cabs, and balustrade, from a certain very ugly edifice, severely classic in some spots, classic as a monkish Latin ballad in others, and well sprouted at the top with small sentry-boxes, perhaps shelters for sharp-shooters, should anybody venture to look mustard at the building. A bronze horse-man, on a bronze horse sixteen hands high, is at work at the upper corner of the square, trying to drive it down hill. A bronze footman, on a column sixteen hundred feet high, or thereabouts, stands at the foot of the square, hailing that fugacious enclosure from under a nautical cocked hat to do its duty, as England expects everything English will, and not to run away from the ugly edifice above.
Such is the square at the very centre of the centre of the world, as I saw it from Smorley’s corner window, while dining in the June twilight, the evening of my arrival in London.
I sat after dinner looking complacently out upon the landscape. A man never attains to that stolidity of content except in England, where the air’s exciting oxygen is well weakened with fog, and the air’s exhilarating ozone is quite discharged from dancing attendance. London and England were not strange to me; but a great city is ever new, and after two years’ inane staring at a quartz-mine, town and townsfolk were still lively contrast to my mind.
I was quietly entertaining myself, sipping meanwhile my pint of Port, — Fine old Crusty, it was charged in the bill, when I saw coming down St. Martin’s Lane, between the cabs and the balustrade of the square, two gentlemen I knew.
Brent and Biddulph! Biddulph, surely. There could be no mistaking that blonde, manly giant, relapsed again into modified Anglicism of dress; but walking freely along, with a step that remembered the prairie.
But that pale, feeble fellow hanging on the other’s arm! Could that be John Brent? He was slouching along, looking upon the ground, a care-worn, dejected man. It cost me a sharp pang to see my brilliant friend so vanquished by a sorrow I could comprehend.
I sprang up, snatched my hat, and rushed out. Eight quiet men, dining systematically at eight tables in the coffee-room, were startled at a rapidity of movement quite unknown to the precincts of Smorley, and each of the eight choked over his mouthful, were it ox-tail, salmon, mutton, bread, or Fine old Crusty. Eight waiters, caught in the act of saying “Yessir! D’rectly Sir!” were likewise shocked into momentary paralysis.
I dashed across the street, knocking the nose-bag off the forlorn nose of a hungry cab-horse, and laid my hand on my friend’s shoulder. He turned, in the hasty, nervous manner of a man who is expecting something, and excited with waiting.
“I was half inclined to let you pass,” said I. “You have not written. I had no right to suppose you alive.”
“I could only write to pain you and myself. I have not found her. I am hardly alive. I shall not long be.”
“Come,” said Biddulph, with his old friendly, cheery manner; “now that Wade has joined us, we will have a fresh start, and better luck. Walk on with us, Wade, and Brent will tell you what we have been doing.”
“Why should I tire him with the weary story of a fruitless search?” said Brent.
It was the same utterly disheartened manner, the same tone of despair, that had so affected me that evening on the plain of Fort Bridger. Not finding whom he sought was crushing him now, as losing her crushed him then. But I thought by what a strange and fearful mercy our despair of that desolate time had been changed to joy. Coming newly to the fact of loss, I could not see it so darkly as it was present to him. A great confidence awoke in me that our old partnership renewed would prosper. I determined not to yield to his mood.
“Your search, then, is absolutely fruitless,” said I. “Well, if she is not dead, she must have forgotten us?”
“Is she a woman to forget?” said Brent, roused a little by my wilful calumny.
“Like other women, I suppose.”
“You must have forgotten the woman we met and saved, and had for our comrade, to think so.”
I rejoiced at the indignation I had stirred.
“Why, then, has she never written?” I queried.
“I am sure as faith that she has, but that her father has cunningly suppressed her letters.”
“The same has occurred to me. The poor old fellow, ashamed of his Mormon life, would very likely be unwilling that any one who knew of it should be informed of his whereabouts.”
“He might, too, have an undiscriminating, senile terror of any letter going to America, lest it should set Danites upon his track, as a renegade. He might fear that we would take his daughter from him. There are twenty suppositions to make. I will not accept that of death nor of neglect.”
“No,” said Biddulph; “dead people cannot hide away their bodies, as living can.”
“You know that they are in England?”
“They landed in Liverpool from the Screw. There they disappeared. Biddulph took me to Clitheroe, up to the old Hall. A noble place it is. It is poetry to have been born there. I do not wonder Mr. Clitheroe loved it.”
“You must go down with me, Wade, as soon as the season is over,” said Biddulph. “I wish I could quarter you in town. Brent is with me. But you will dine with us every day, when you have nothing better to do, and be at home with us always. I can give you flapjacks and molasses, Laramie fashion.”
“Thank you, my dear fellow!”
“You must not think,” says Brent, “that I went up to Clitheroe even for Biron’s hospitality. “We were both on the search all through the country. We thought Mr. Clitheroe might have betaken himself to a coal-mine again. We discovered the very mine where he formerly worked. They remembered him well. The older generation of those grimy troglodytes well remembered Gentleman Hugh and his daughter, little Lady Ellen, and the rough fellows and their rough wives had a hundred stories to tell of the beautiful, gentle child, — how she had been a good angel to them, and already a protectress to her father. In the office, too, of the coal-mine, we found traces of him under another name, always faithful, honest, respected, and a gentleman. It was interesting to have all his sad story confirmed, just as he told it to you the night of Jake Shamberlain’s ball; but it did not help our search. Then we enlarged its scope, and followed out every line of travel from Liverpool and to London, the great monster, that draws in all, the prosperous and the ruined, the rich to spend and the poor to beg.
“We have had some queer and some romantic adventures in our search, eh, Brent? Some rather comic runaways we’ve overhauled,” said Biddulph; “but we’ll tell you of them, Wade, when we are in good spirits again, and with our fugitives by us to hear what pains we took for their sake.”
“And all this while you have found no trace?” I said.
“One slight trace only,” replied my friend; “enough to identify them disappearing among these millions of London. We found a porter at the Paddington station, who had seen a young lady and an old man stepping from a third-class carriage of a night-train. ‘You see, sir,’ said the man, — he evidently had a heart under his olive corduroys, — ‘I marked the old gent and the young woman, she was so daughterly with him. I’ve got a little girl of my own, and mayhap I shall come out old and weakly, and she’ll have to look after me. It was the gray of the morning when the train come in. There warn’t many passengers. It was cold winter weather, — the month of February, I should say. The young woman, — she had dark hair, and looked as if she was one to go through thick and thin, — she jumped out of the carriage, where she had been settin’ all that cold night, and gave the old gent her hand. I heard her call him “Father,” and tell him to take care; and he had need. He seemed to be stiff with cold. He was an old gent, such as you don’t see every day. He had a long white beard, — a kind of swallow-tail beard. His clothes, too, was strange. He had a long gray top-coat, grayish and bluish, with a cape of the same over his shoulders, and brass buttons stamped with an eagle. A milingtary coat it was. I used to see such coats on the sentinels in France when I went over to dig on the Chalong Railway. The old gent looked like a foreigner, with his swallow-tail beard and that milingtary coat; but there was an Englishman under the coat, if I knows ’em. And the young woman, sir, was English, — I don’t believe there’s any such out of Old England.’“
“It must be they,” cried I. “I saw him in that very coat, tramping up and down like a hunted man, beside the wagons that were to take him from Fort Laramie.”
“You did? That completes the identification. But what good? This was a trace of them in London; so is a sailor’s cap on a surge a token of a sailor sunk and lying somewhere under the gray waste of sea. We lost them again utterly.”
With such talk, we had descended from Trafalgar Square, gone down Whitehall, turned in at the Horse Guards, and, crossing Green Park, had come out upon Hyde Park Corner. It was the very top moment of the London season. The world, all sunshine and smiles and splendor, was eddying about the corner of Apsley House. Piccadilly was a flood of eager, busy people. The Park blossomed with gay crowds. But under all this laughing surface, I saw with my mind’s eye two solitary figures slowly sinking away and drowning drearily, — two figures solitary except for each other, — a pale, calm woman, with gray, steady eyes, leading a vague old man, with a white beard and a long military surtout.
“Lost utterly!” said Brent again, as if in answer to my thought.
“No,” said I, shaking off this despondency. “We have seemed to lose her twice more desperately than now. It looked darker when we left them at Fort Bridger; much darker when we knew that those ruffians had got time and space the start of us; darkest of all when poor Pumps fell dead in Luggernel Alley. Searching in a Christian city is another thing than our agonized chase in the wilderness.”
“A Christian city!” said Brent, with a slight shudder. “You do not know what this Christian city is for a friendless woman. There are brutes here as evil and more numerous than in all barbarism together. Many times, in my searches up and down the foul slums of London, I have longed to exchange their walls for the walls of Luggernel Alley, and endure again the frenzy of our gallop there. You think me weak, perhaps, Wade, for my doubt of success; but remember that I have been at this vain search over England and on the Continent for five months.”
“But understand. Wade,” said Biddulph, “that we do not give it up, although we have found no clew.”
“Give it up!” cried Brent with fervor. “I live for that alone. When the hope ends, I end.”
How worn he looked, “with grief that’s beauty’s canker!” Life was wasting from him, as it ever does when man pursues the elusive and unattained. When a man like Brent once voluntarily concentrates all his soul on one woman, worthy of his love, thenceforth he must have love for daily food, or life burns dim and is a dying flame.
“To-morrow,” said I, halting at the Park corner, “I must be at work setting my business in motion. I have letters to write this evening, and a dozen of famous mechanicians to see to-morrow. In the evening we will put our heads together again.”
“Over my claret and a weed after it, understand,” said Biddulph.
“Yes, I’ll try whether you can take the taste of Missouri argee and pigtail out of my mouth.”
“You must be prepared to be made a lion of by my mother and cousins. They know the history of Don Fulano as well as a poet knows the pedigree of Pegasus. I have brought tears to many gentle eyes with the story of his martyrdom for liberty.”
“Ah, Fulano! if we only had him here! He would know how to aid us.”
I left them, and walked down Piccadilly to Smorley’s. Some of the eight waiters, who had seen me bolt, still regarded me with affright. I wrote my letters and went to bed.
My brain was still rolling in my skull with the inertia of its sea voyage. The blur and bustle of London perplexed me. I slept; but in my worried sleep I seemed to hear, above the roar in the streets, a far-away scream of a woman, as I had heard it in the pause of the gale at Fort Bridger. Then I seemed to have unhorsed the Iron Duke from his seat at Hyde Park Corner, and, mounted in his place and armed with the Nelson Column for a lance, to be charging along the highways and by-ways of London in chase of two dim, flying figures, — a lady pale as death, and a weary man in a long gray surtout.